If you find the term “dementia” a bit confusing and wish you understood more, you’re not alone. Often relatives and friends of individuals with dementia struggle to pinpoint exactly what type of dementia a family member has been diagnosed with. There is, therefore, a tendency to lump all dementias into a single category without really understanding the unique features of each type.
Here is a brief breakdown of the most common types of dementia, taken from a comprehensive list created by the Alzheimer’s Association. (The list includes descriptions of several additional forms of dementia, including “mixed” dementia, which can involve two or three types of dementia.)
- Alzheimer’s disease: Currently 5.8 million Americans are struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the most common form of dementia. The hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is a buildup of abnormal structures, called plaques and tangles. Together they work to block critical communication pathways between nerve cells, which disrupt the processes needed for cells to survive. As cells die, an individual’s memory as well as physical health continue to deteriorate.
- Vascular dementia: The second most common form of dementia, vascular dementia involves damage to the blood vessels in the brain. The brain tissue becomes injured which deprives the brain cells of vital nutrients, such as oxygen, that they need to survive. Vascular dementia often occurs as the result of a stroke. Initial symptoms may include confusion, trouble speaking and vision loss.
- Lewy body dementia: Named after Dr. Frederich Lewy, the neurologist who discovered the disease, Lewy bodies result from an abnormal processing of the Alpha-synuclein protein. Lewy body dementia is often associated with Parkinson’s disease in that, in addition to impacting memory and behavior, it also manifests itself in muscle rigidity and movement difficulties. Lewy Body dementia is the third most common form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
- Frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTD): Affecting the frontal/temporal regions of the brain, this type of dementia can cause severe personality and behavioral changes as well as a decline in motor and speech coordination. ALS is one disease linked to the motor deterioration caused by FTD. This form of dementia is sometimes mistaken for a personality disorder in individuals who exhibit extreme mood swings and in appropriate behavior. There is also a genetic predisposition for the disease; about one third of cases are inherited.
It is important, regardless of the type of dementia a loved one may have, to learn about other forms as well. First, a broader understanding will give you added insight into the care of your loved one. Secondly, it will help you to be more supportive of those who may have a loved one with a different form of dementia.
Ultimately, of course, knowledge is power. Learning about all forms of dementia leads to better understanding and appreciation for the complex nature of the disease. Make it a point to share what you learn with family and friends. The more educated we all are, the more aware we will be of opportunities to work together to help conquer this devastating disease.